Technique or Feel? Which is more important?
You will have no doubt heard people attribute these labels to players, categorising them as ‘Feel’ players or having superb ‘Technique’. Upon closer investigation, these two coveted attributes turn out to not be mutually exclusive as we might think; the best players can, and usually do, have both by the bucket load. It is also interesting to think about the way technique and feel have been defined by guitar players over the years, potentially meaning something very different to different people. The technique over feel discussion is such a mainstay in the guitar world; in this blog we attempt to merely offer some thoughts which may help you draw you own conclusions.
What do we actually mean by technique?
All too often, the term ‘technique’ is used to describe a player’s speed or acrobatic ability. This has really become part of the consciousness for many guitarists, to the point where, if you are not a fire breathing shred monster, then the notion of developing great technique can often feel like an unnecessary part of our guitar playing goals.
Technique simply refers to the overcoming of any physical restrictions which may prevent you playing the music you want. For example, a player such as Yngwie Malmsteen requires top level sweep picking techniques to execute the licks and phrases he hears and composes. On the flip side, soulful blues players whom many would categorise as ‘feel’ players, by this definition, are steeped in guitar technique - the ability to bend like BB King requires a huge level of accuracy and technical control. Equally, it could be said that, to deliver a solid double stop rhythm part like John Mayer or Stevie Ray Vaughan requires the same level of technique required to nail that 8 fingered tapping lick which has served as your party trick for years!
In a nutshell, the level of technique required to perform anything on the guitar at a high level is important. Where you direct that technique and which areas you decide to strengthen, all depend on what you intend to ‘say’ with the guitar.
How do we define ‘Feel’?
With an even more ‘blurry’ definition than our idea of technique; ‘feel’, for many players, is generally assumed to be a direct translation of slow playing. What do we really mean when we are referring to the ‘feel’ a player has? A more accurate definition would be the quality of the notes and phrases they play; do they convey a mood? - be it sad, aggressive, quiet, anxious. When we think of great feel we automatically conjure up the sound of players who’s goal it is to communicate their ideas through only a small number of notes. Is it the feel which makes this playing pleasing to our ears? Or the accuracy and technique of the player which has enabled him to play these licks without any physical restrictions which may prevent him putting an emotional stamp on things?
Nobody would ever argue that David Gilmour didn’t play with great feel and convey emotion with every note; could we not, therefore, say the same for players such as Pantera’s Dimebag? The raw power of his attack and angst driven dynamics arguably convey the same level of ‘feel’ but the emotion he is striving for is more aggression and authority than delicacy. By this definition we could probably create a whole new list of players who fall into the ‘feel’ category. It may be that when we say ‘feel’ we are referring to a different quality altogether!
Can you have both?
The short answer is yes! And the strange thing is - it is has never been a question of choosing one over the other! It is really only in the guitar world where we make this distinction; a classical violinist or pianist would see the pursuit of good feel and technique as equal parts; combining to make them a great musician.
As we have discussed, all great players, more often than not, display both in almost equal measure - one player’s tear jerking high bend is another’s tension building fast run! That same big bend couldn’t pull on your heart strings without the technique to back it up, and that blistering run would leave you cold if it wasn’t played with the right attack, dynamics and … well … feel!
What level of technique should I work towards?
Like many things on your guitar journey, this is completely personal to your likes, tastes and goals. Take inspiration from the music you love and the players which inspire you - which elements of their playing really appeal to you? How does it sound when you try to copy those qualities? It may be that you want to isolate the independent techniques which are holding you back from faithfully imitating that sound. If that quick lick isn’t coming together - it may be that both hands aren’t in sync or you need to develop your picking skills. If that Gary Moore lick you have learnt isn’t giving you goosebumps; this could be the accuracy of your bending or vibrato.
Above all, it is important not to ignore your technical development; find any physical obstacles which are preventing you from playing what you want and seek out the exercises/lessons which aim to help you master them.
How do I develop my feel?
Listen carefully to the quality of the individual notes you are playing; are you delivering them with the mood and dynamics with which you intended? Try this with one note - before you play it; concentrate on really hearing everything about it in your head; its volume, tone, vibrato, every detail; now, try to recreate that same sound when you strike the note. How close did you get? This is a real eye opener for assessing your feel and communication.
Another good way to get a handle on this is to focus on, not only mastering how to physically play the next famous lick or solo you learn, but to copy the dynamic, volume and mood of the playing - match the quiet parts and dig in during the more authoritive notes!
The definitions for feel and technique, it seems, are not as black and white as many would think. As two sides to the same coin we may deduce that you can’t really have one without the other!
If you have been inspired by this blog; check out these other articles on phrasing and delivering the perfect bends:
Pro Phrasing Blog: https://www.licklibrary.com/news/pro-phrasing
How’s Your String Bending? Blog: https://www.licklibrary.com/news/hows-your-string-bending